Published 11/1/2018
Jennifer M. Weiss, MD

Why Doctors Don’t Call In Sick When They Should

Research from Florida Atlantic University and Cleveland State University has found a direct correlation between preventative health care and the number of paid sick days to which an employee is entitled. Workers with more than 10 paid sick days annually access preventative care more frequently than those without paid sick days. Preventative care, in turn, leads to better overall mental and physical health.

Doctors in private practice function like small business owners. When they are out for any reason, including sickness, they must pay overhead without collecting income.

On the other hand, doctors in academic practices and those employed by hospitals may have paid sick days included in their benefits package, ranging from two to three weeks per annum.

However, most doctors never take any of their sick days—and not because they don’t get sick. Taking sick days is highly frowned upon in the medical world, and residents are taught from the start not to call in sick no matter what the reason.

If you work in the medical profession, I’m sure you know this. Halfway through my residency (before 80-hour workweek regulations), I called in sick and was asked whether I was “sure” that I was “really” sick. I was: I had the flu with full-fledged vomiting and all the fixings. I called in sick that day but never really did it again until this year (at age 46) when I had visible shingles.

Enough of the unspoken rule that “doctors don’t call in sick.”

Still commonplace

I am at a point in my career where I can call in sick and not worry whether I will be fired or get fewer hours. Unfortunately, this is not the case with most doctors, and I am fairly certain residents are still urged to not call in sick.

I have seen surgeons with the flu operate, stop to vomit, and continue on. I have seen doctors walk into hospitals with sky-high fevers and strange diseases. I have seen doctors attached to IV bags sitting in hospital hallways midshift, just to get through the rest of the day while beating back illness.

This insanity has to stop. By not taking sick time, doctors everywhere are making other people sicker.

To give doctors a break when it comes to resting, feeling better, and having permission to call in sick, the following needs to happen:

Responsibility. Doctors should cover for each other when someone is sick. Another doctor in a group should be able to fill a shift, as creating a culture of support is imperative.

Patient education and understanding. Patients must understand that doctors are human and can call in sick. It is not in anyone’s best interest when a sick doctor treats a sick patient.

Transparency. It is commonplace for clinic or hospital staff to tell patients that doctors are busy, on call, or out for other reasons when they are actually sick. Offices should be allowed to tell patients that a doctor has taken a sick day. This will help people to understand that doctors are not superhuman.

Self-care. Doctors should have their own primary care physicians and should be responsible for routine health visits and tests, such as colorectal screening, Pap smears, mammograms, flu shots, etc.

Surgeons. Rescheduling an urgent surgery is difficult, but this is when a peer or partner network comes into vital play. One surgeon should be able to call in sick and know that a partner or peer can perform the necessary surgery. If surgery is elective, rescheduling to a time when the surgeon is healthy should not be taboo.

Jennifer M. Weiss, MD, is chair of the AAOS Communications Cabinet. Learn more about Dr. Weiss at www.jenniferweissmd.com and follow her on Twitter using her handle, @mymomthesurgeon.